In 1862, the 20-year-old Prince of Wales, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (and the future King Edward VII), embarked on a tour of the Middle East, accompanied by the photographer Francis Bedford. The resulting images, produced little more than 20 years after the arrival of photography, were the first-ever visual record of a royal tour.
A new exhibition Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East on view at The Queens Gallery
, Buckingham Palace this Friday reveals the Prince's journey through Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece in over 100 spectacular photographs.
The Prince of Wales's four-month tour, the first official royal tour of the Middle East, had been carefully planned by his parents to occupy him after university and before he was married. Despite Prince Alberts sudden death just two months earlier in December 1861, Queen Victoria was determined that her sons visit should go ahead. The Prince travelled in a manner unassociated with royalty at the time, by horse and camping in tents, and met rulers, politicians and other notable figures throughout his journey. He diligently recorded his travels in a private journal, which is on show for the first time.
Photography of a royal tour was a new concept, inspired in part by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's avid interest in the medium. Francis Bedford had already impressed the Queen with his photographs of places associated with Prince Albert's childhood in Germany, an earlier royal commission. In mid-February 1862, the Photographic News announced that the Prince of Wales was to be accompanied by 'eight gentlemen only', including Mr Bedford, on a tour to be undertaken 'in as private a manner as possible'. The presence of a photographer was 'the first public act which illustrates that the heir to England's throne takes as deep an interest in photography as his late royal father'.
The main purpose of Bedford's work was to capture historic and sacred landscapes the young Prince and his companions appear in only three of the 191 surviving photographs. Two of these were taken in Egypt, showing the party in front of the pyramids at Giza and at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, ancient Thebes. In the third, they are having lunch under a fig tree at Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The rest of the photographs reflect a growing public demand for romantic images of biblical sites, Egyptian and Greek ruins, and mosques. By the 1860s leisure travel to the Middle East was increasing, stimulated by major archaeological discoveries in the region. The introduction of steamships to Alexandria in 1840 had cut journey times and made the area more accessible for European pilgrims and tourists.
In his lifetime, Francis Bedford was considered one of the greatest British photographers, and on his return from the Middle East many of his photographs of the royal tour were exhibited to the public in a gallery on New Bond Street. Among those now on display for the first time since then are views of the Colossi of Memnon and of the Temple of Horus at Edfu on the west bank of the Nile, in which Bedford's portable darkroom can be seen in the shadow of the temple. Bedford would have had to take a large amount of equipment with him, including plates, tripods, lenses, chemicals and a darkroom, as well as the camera itself.
A number of antiquities collected by the Prince also are on display for the first time. They include an ancient Egyptian papyrus inscribed with the Amduat, a funerary text which describes the journey of regeneration of Re, the Egyptian sun god, and pottery vessels from an excavation on the island of Rhodes. Also among the objects is a marble fragment from Syria inscribed From the remains of the Christian Quarter at Damascus, May. 1862. Syria, reflecting the devastation caused by the 1860 conflict between the Christian Maronites and the Druze, when the Christian quarter in Damascus was destroyed. A marble bust of Princess Alexandra, who married the Prince the following year, shows her wearing a brooch set with one of the scarabs acquired by the Prince in Egypt, which is also on display.
Sophie Gordon, Royal Collection Trust, curator of the exhibition, said, 'Today royal tours are widely photographed, and the pictures are transmitted instantly around the world. Bedford's photographs were not seen by the public until over a month after the royal party's return to England, but his presence on the tour was widely reported in the press. The intense interest in his work at the time shows just how innovative and ground-breaking a move it was to invite Bedford to accompany the tour.'
Writer and broadcaster John McCarthy, who has written the foreword to the exhibition publication, said, The first thing that strikes me about Bedfords photographs is how good they are. It is only 20 or 30 years after the invention of the medium, and yet the quality of the images is stunning. They manage to bring alive the places the royal party visited, capturing the majesty and romance of what were then largely unvisited sites. One hundred and fifty years on and the Middle East continues to hold our attention for the wonderful sites, but also for the political landscape in which they are set.'